UK chapter rocked by Gibraltar scandal: In the second controversy to engulf Wikimedia UK in two months, its immediate past chair Roger Bamkin has resigned from the board of the chapter following a growing furore over a conflict of interest.
In the second controversy to engulf Wikimedia UK in two months, its immediate past chair Roger Bamkin has resigned from the board of the chapter. The resignation last Wednesday followed a growing furore over the conflict of interest between two of Roger's roles outside the chapter and his close involvement in Wikimedia UK board's decision-making process, including the access to private mailing lists that board members in all chapters need. But the irony surrounding Roger's resignation is its connection with efforts by Wikimedians and collaborators to strengthen the reach of Wikimedia projects through technical innovation.
The first potential conflict involves a contract between Roger Bamkin's company Victuallers Ltd and the government of the UK territory of Gibraltar, through the Gibraltar Tourist Board. The contract is to provide the enabling technology and the associated training of local participants for GibraltarpediA, a project launched just two months ago by the Gibraltar government after it signed a trademark agreement with the WMF. The slogan for the project is "Bridging Europe and Africa". A second COI issue concerns the use of the English Wikipedia's DYK process to gain front page exposure for a number of articles related to Gibraltar, including 17 in August.
What are quick-response (QR) codes? Central to the two Wikipedia town projects is QRpedia, a mobile Web-based system for using QR codes to deliver Wikipedia articles to visitors – often tourists – in their preferred language. Specialised plaques, each containing a unique code, are installed at locations of interest; when a visitor holds their smartphone in front of the plaque, this triggers instant access to a Wikipedia article about the location. QRpedia was conceived by Roger Bamkin and coded by Terence Eden last year, and is also in use at institutions including museums in the UK, the US, and Spain.
The aim of GibraltarpediA is to build on the highly successful MonmouthpediA project, launched in May in the Welsh town of Monmouth using QR codes. That first "Wikipedia town" project – a collaboration between WMUK and Monmouthshire county council – was greeted with strong approval by senior Wikimedians: shortly after the launch, Jimmy Wales is quoted as saying: "Bringing a whole town to life on Wikipedia is something new and is a testament to the forward-thinking people of Monmouth, all of the volunteers and the Wikimedia UK team. I’m looking forward to seeing other towns and cities doing the same thing."
According to Gibraltarpedia.org (which redirects to an English Wikipedia page), the more recent project "aims to cover every single notable place, person, artefact, plant and animals [sic] in Gibraltar in as many languages as possible", and will be "at least three times the size of MonmouthpediA".
[O]nce all the landmarks are equipped with codes and all the articles are written, other factors need to be dealt with for the project to take off. Roaming charges may deter visitors from connecting to the web – and the government of Gibraltar says it is considering the possibility of free wi-fi. Also, tourists should be familiar with QR codes and be willing to use them. Although people may be used to seeing them, not many in the Western world actually scan them.
On the upside, the article says that QR technology "will be integrated into Apple's Passbook ticket/coupon wallet service, available on the forthcoming iOS6 operating system".
However, things started to unravel with a post at the DYK talk page on 14 September regarding multiple nominations for coveted main-page exposure through that forum, in which Roger promoted an article he himself wrote. This is contrary to DYK rules, although Roger has pointed out that he rescinded the nomination. Apparently 17 Gibraltar-related nominations were pushed through during August, and it appears that the DYK procedures have been used in a way that minimises the review process and maximises the promotion to the main page of articles on this topic – chiefly by cross-nomination and cross-reviewing. This comes after a succession of disputes during the past few years about the practice by some editors of launching large numbers of nominations on the same topic-areas at DYK.
Roger told the Signpost:
John Cummings and I are not being paid to edit wikipedia. We are being paid to organise the project, enabling and helping individuals within different communities to join together, the global, virtual world of Wikipedia editors, and the people of Gibraltar and the surrounding regions in Europe and Africa. My motivation is to inspire people and organisations to acquire and distribute knowledge freely throughout the world.
I did make a mistake in creating articles on DYK – two articles this month that included a Gibraltar cave that tourists cannot go into and a WWII destroyer named after an old name for Gibraltar. I did this out of enthusiasm and interest in a new subject. I have volunteered to not edit DYK on Gibraltar related subjects.
Jimmy's talk page
Three days later, tensions spread to Jimmy Wales' talk page. Jimmy's only reply at that page: "It is wildly inappropriate for a board member of a chapter, or anyone else in an official role of any kind in a charity associated with Wikipedia, to take payment from customers in exchange for securing favorable placement on the front page of Wikipedia or anywhere else. ... [T]he honorable thing for anyone with a conflict of interest driving them to act on behalf of a client in the manner I discussed above is resign from the board of Wikimedia UK, or resign from the job with the client. Anything else raises the appearance of impropriety at a minimum."
The Signpost notes that this statement was made despite the fact that paid editing is currently permissible on the English Wikipedia.
Discussion on Jimmy's talk page has since grown in size and vitriol ("whore", "witch hunt"). There have been accusations that Roger "may be slanting information in a fairly subtle way in some Gibraltar-related article[s]", and a proposal that he "suggest edits rather than making them himself on any topic related to Gibraltar". One editor wrote that "while it is possible that what Roger is doing may be legal in the most narrow of senses, it is totally unethical: it is clear that he should step down NOW from any position of trust or responsibility in any Wikimedia operation, AND should cease to edit any article where he is operating as a paid agent of the subject ...". Roger also received strong support from some editors ("One fact that I am certain of is that Roger is an honourable man, and I would expect him to be perfectly capable of giving paid advice to Gibraltar without taking on any of the editing obligations that you seem to imagine").
Gibraltan government statements
The situation, by now a swirling quandary concerning the relationship between WMUK, the Gibraltar government, Victuallers Ltd (and Roger's associates), and his role as a Wikipedia editor, has not been helped by statements by Gibraltar's minister for tourism, Neil Costa, as reported in the Gibraltar newspaper Vox. At the same time as encouraging Gibraltans to open an account on Wikipedia to contribute "photos and information on the sites, history and so on", Costa apparently said, "We will have millions of people onto the GibraltarpediA once the product has spiralled. ... So one of the great decisions the Tourist Board has is effectively marketing but done at the lowest possible cost, and this is exactly what this achieves in a very revolutionised way. ... GibraltarpediA will encourage tourists to come to Gibraltar without having to do so through a package tour."
To make matters worse, Gibraltar's Director of Heritage, Professor Clive Finlayson, is reported in the Gibraltar Chronicle as noting that concern was expressed that volunteers who do not have Gibraltar's best interest at heart may write untrue or negative articles. (The continued British claim to ownership over the territory has been the subject of friction with the Spanish authorities for decades.) Finlayson said, "The people from Wikipedia UK have guaranteed to us that this has an element of self-regulation and we want to encourage many local volunteers to keep an eye on what is going on, and if things go on that is nasty, then it is very easy for them to go back to the earlier page in seconds."
WMUK board and conflict of interest
On the same day, Chris Keating, Chair of WMUK, put out a statement on the matter, saying among other things that:
Wikimedia UK's sole involvement with [GibraltarpediA] to date has been the despatch of a few booklets. ... An agreement between Roger and Terence on the one hand and Wikimedia UK on the other is in the works, shouldn't take more than a few weeks to finish off, and will provide a firm basis for the growing use of Wikipedia-linked QR codes in future. ... Our conflict of interest policy is available here and is supported by the Declarations of Interest register here. The Conflict of Interest policy is modelled quite closely on Charity Commission guidance and is very clear that [if board members] have a conflict of interest ... they have to recuse themselves. We have followed this policy in all discussions related to the subjects mentioned in this thread. ... There is some debate on the Board about whether we need to develop this policy further, and members' views are welcome. [Links piped by the Signpost]
Roger declares his paid consultancies for both Monmouthshire county council and the Gibraltar government; this includes a statement that "there is no known COI as WMUK does not have a relationship with this Government but it is hoped that one may develop." A press release by the board last Friday states:
Roger has always been open with Wikimedia UK about his commercial interests and has declared them in public at appropriate times. He has not voted in any Wikimedia UK decisions about Monmouthpedia since the start of his consultancy relationship with MCC or on any decisions about Gibraltarpedia or QRpedia. ... Roger has not received any Wikimedia UK funds for any of these projects, except for out-of-pocket expenses incurred in his role as a volunteer in the early development stages of Monmouthpedia before becoming a consultant, paid in line with our normal expenses policy.
However, a member of WMUK has told the Signpost he believes the board is naive about conflict of interest, and that all chapters and the foundation need to learn lessons from this scenario. It is not good enough, he said, to disclose potential conflicts and to have COI policies if people in leadership positions don't understand COI.
This appears to be confirmed by the fact that by 30 June, Roger had already offered his resignation to the board twice, clearly perceiving that there might be a COI in his emerging extra roles. A single diff, then, is evidence that the problem is systemic, and at least partly exonerates Roger from responsibility for COI – at least in relation to his continued board membership. Further, he stated on 19 September on Jimmy's page: "When I stood for the board last time I clearly made the point that I would have COI issues but I wouldn't have undeclared COI issues."
That the problem might be systemic resonates with recently blogged complaints by ex-WMUK treasurer Thomas Dalton that for WMUK "too much happens without proper thought and oversight, which has resulted in serious mistakes being made"; and that the chapter needs to give itself "the time to think about where we are and where we are going otherwise everything will spiral out of control".
The Signpost asked Geoff Brigham, the foundation's chief counsel, whether the foundation has any formal relationship with the Gibraltar Tourist Board:
The Wikimedia Foundation signed a trademark agreement with the government of Gibraltar, as represented by the Gibraltar Tourist Board, for a limited term use (one year) of the Wikipedia trademarks as part of the Gibraltarpedia project. As with most trademark agreements, the Foundation protects its marks by a detailed license which among other things, requires compliance with any reasonable requests of the Foundation, as well as with the Foundation’s Trademark Policy. This ensures that use of the marks upholds the reputation of the Foundation and limits confusion as to affiliation, and enables the Foundation to end relationships where there has been a material breach of the agreement or where use of the mark is out of line with the Foundation's mission.
We understand that QR plaques are being used in the UK, the US, India, Germany, Spain, Russia, Serbia, Estonia, Australia, and Hungary. Usage appears to be encouraged by a how-to page, complete with a gallery of examples that include the WMF trademark. Nowhere on that page or WikiProject QRpedia is there mention of the need to obtain trademark agreements from the WMF to use the Wikimedia trademarks on QRpedia installations.
The Signpost asked Geoff Brigham whether the foundation has a legal agreement concerning all uses of its logo on the plaques that are enabling components of the QRPedia technology:
There are no legal agreements in place between the Wikimedia Foundation and QRPedia. We would encourage anybody using Wikimedia trademarks for plaques to contact us so we can review and hopefully give approval in appropriate cases that advance our mission.
We have had several email exchanges with Roger, who pointed out the enormous advantages to the movement that are likely to flow from the innovations for which he and his colleagues have largely been responsible.
Wikimedia India board elected: The Indian chapter has announced the result of their recent board election, with five people elected out of nine candidates: Karthik Nadar, Nikita Belavate, Pranav Curumsey, Srikanth Ramakrishnan, and Viswa Prabha.
Main-page redesign competition: 24 proposals have been lodged, and discussion about the issue continues on the competition talk page. Editors are welcome to submit their own proposals until 30 September.